From Montgomery to Montclair: African-American Quilts at Montclair Art Museum

wells maskOn July 2, 1964, the United States enacted the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination against any person based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of that landmark act, the Montclair Art Museum is presenting 30 colorful and creatively designed quilts by African-American quiltmakers primarily from West Alabama.

“From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts,” which opened Saturday, showcases 29 quilts on loan from the Montgomery Museum, most of which were made between the mid-1950s and the end of the 20th century.

Quilts are as American as apple pie, but few may realize the prominence they’ve played in African-American communities. Gee’s Bend, Ala., an isolated African-American community founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, became known for its quiltmaking, a skill that has been passed down through the community for generations. Created as a way to support struggling poor families, the quilts have been displayed in art museums throughout the country.

Two of the quilts on display at MAM are from Gee’s Bend, and the rest hail from other areas of Alabama. Central to the show are the quilts of Yvonne Wells, a Tuscaloosa public school teacher who began quilting in 1979. Her unique, hand-stitched works range from the playful (“Elvis II”) to the historical. One quilt, “Yesterday: Civil Rights in the South III,” traces the roots of civil rights, starting with the Mayflower in one corner of the quilt, and continuing through cotton picking, lynching, the KKK and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Eleven of her quilts are on display here, and they all have an improvisational style that is evident in their wide stitches, uneven shapes and mix of materials. The quilt is her canvas, and she uses it boldly to express the African-American struggle.28_Wells

There are more traditional styles on display, too — from housetop to log cabin to the classic (and ubiquitous) lone star. But even those have a uniqueness to them. Roberta Jemison’s “Tombstone Quilt,” for example, seems at first glance a simple red X on a blue background until you look closer and see the variations of blue in some strips of the material.

The quilts, which will be on exhibit until January 4, 2015, came to Montgomery from Kempf Hogan, a Michigan collector who acquired the quilts over a period of many years with the guidance and expertise of the late Dr. Robert Cargo of Tuscaloosa. Together the two identified the most important quiltmakers of the region and began gathering their works.

Gail Stavitsky, MAM’s curator, organized their showing here, calling them “beautiful and compelling testaments to the democratic folks art tradition of quiltmaking.”

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